Creating and Unwinding in Ceramics

Slipping dark smocks over their uniforms, the Upper School students collected their works-in-progress and sat around the newspaper-covered table in Room 613. Although the projects looked as unique as the artists creating them, each began the same way: from a thick slab of off-white clay. 

Welcome to Ceramics, a popular Class 10-12 FOCUS elective, in which students have the opportunity to learn about and express themselves through this versatile medium. The 90-minute class that meets twice a cycle, however, far exceeds this simple definition, as a recent visit beautifully demonstrated.

When setting up their work, Art teacher Marianne Brand reminded her class to take extra care. “Clay is very fragile until it’s fired,” she said. By “fired,” she was referring to the process of hardening the clay in a kiln. First, the clay must be “bone dry” before entering the kiln or it may shatter.

Located in a tiny room next to the art studio, the Chapin kiln was plenty busy as a collection of striking pieces rotated in and out of the special oven and on to shelves for display. Ms. Brand noted that firing requires a full day, plus a night to cool, so she offers an ongoing roster of assignments to keep her students continuously engaged. 
“We’re going to glaze today,” announced Ms. Brand, who teaches both Upper and Middle School Art. From the cabinets above the sink, she pulled out bottles of liquid glaze – in hues such as cobalt blue, ocean mist, key lime and sunset red – and placed them on the table. She explained that glaze, which is made from silica and other chemicals, seals and protects the ceramics, while providing vibrant color. 

The students selected brushes from a plastic container and began to carefully apply the glaze to their pieces. Each work utilized one of three central techniques: a “coil pot,” created by wrapping lengths of clay around a flat base and building upwards; a “pinch pot,” produced by methodically pinching the clay into the shape of a container; or a “relief plaque,” made when a structural image like a flower is carved into a block of clay. 

As they settled into their art, the feeling in the room was calm and restorative. Whatever tension the students may have felt before class started seemed to vanish. With easy focus, each student advanced at her own pace. They offered suggestions to one another, consulted with Ms. Brand and chatted amiably as they worked. Time stood still.

After separating a section of clay with a wire-cutter for one student, Ms. Brand helped another patch a tiny hole in her bowl. She encouraged the class to take risks and to experiment with form, size and color. Musical notes, polka dots, myriad stripes, geometric shapes and delicate blossoms enhanced their impressive projects.

While most of the students devoted their time to glazing, several others concentrated on earlier steps in the process. One student rested her clay on a lazy Susan turntable, which gently spun around giving her full access to her emerging pinch pot. A second, after using a rolling pin to thin out and sharpen her slab, placed an intricate stencil over the top and traced the pattern with a marker for what would become a relief plaque. A third cut petals out of clay with a rounded knife to decorate her elaborate vase.

As the clock neared noon, the end of class, the students rinsed off their brushes, returned the bottles of glaze to the cabinet and gingerly stored their work. Before heading off to their next activity, a few paused to share their thoughts. 

“This is my favorite class,” exclaimed one as she untied her smock.

“It’s relaxing and also really fun,” added her classmate. “Everyone is so good. I look at their work and think, wow!”